Prizm News / October 3, 2017 / By Staley Munroe

With 10 years of high fashion, high heels and hijinks on High Street, HighBall Halloween is flying… yeah, you get it.

 

Interviews and Photos by Staley Munroe

What started in 2007 as a street festival that attracted 5,000 people to Columbus’ Short North Arts District has grown over the last decade into a two-night couture extravaganza of fashion, music, drag, street performance and over-the-top costumes.

And the city’s profile as a creative capital has grown along with it.

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“The lasting legacy … is one which has helped to craft the national profile of Columbus as a center for creativity,” says Betsy Pandora, executive director of the Short North Alliance, which hosts the party as a yearly fundraiser for its work promoting the neighborhood
and its businesses.

HighBall is expected to draw 30,000 people this year when the party begins on Friday, Oct. 20. From the beginning, the LGBTQ presence has been visible and huge, on-stage, behind the scenes and among the crowd.

Nina West, the only host the show has ever known, says it’s only natural. That’s because the Short North has long been the cultural heart of Columbus’ LGBTQ community, and Halloween has long been referred to as Gay Christmas.

We spoke with Nina, the drag alter-ego of Columbus’ Andrew Levitt, and three other LGBTQ veterans of HighBall Halloween about the event, their involvement and what it means to our community.

Prizm photo by Staley Munroe

Nina West

The queen of Columbus drag queens, Nina West, has hosted every HighBall Halloween.

As the official host of HighBall since the beginning, what does this 10-year milestone mean to you?

HighBall and the Short North Alliance were the first team of people to really take a chance on me and trust me at the helm of a major event. So it truthfully changed my career.

How has drag helped shape HighBall, and do you feel the impact is mutual?

Well, I think the Short North has long been known as the “gay district” to LGBTQIA people, so looking back, I think the presence of drag at HighBall, especially in one of the most visible roles, has made a great deal of sense.

“HighBall has opened doors for me that otherwise may not have been there. And drag is like the ultimate fab costume, right?”

– NINA WEST

And it has truly impacted the event in a very positive way. We are an event that is open and welcoming of everyone, and that mission is clear from the moment you walk in. You will see families, friends, couples, regardless of their identity, all out on the street celebrating the magic of the season. And allowing me to have the honor of being in the position of hostess has only helped me grow as an entertainer.

HighBall has opened doors for me that otherwise may not have been there. And drag is like the ultimate fab costume, right? Drag is so in the spirit of the season and anyone can do it, so I hope to see more kings, queens and everything in between at this 10th birthday celebration than ever before!

Over the past 10 years, what three absolute highlights do you most remember?

I have a few favorite moments and costumes. One year, a couple came as Mount Rushmore and had this incredible headpiece mounted between them. I had never seen anything like it. It was so creative and out of the box.

Group costumes always win me over if they are done well, and I have two favorites from HighBall. About three years ago, a group of friends did the entire cast of Labyrinth! So good. Complete with Goblin King!

And then maybe two years ago, I remember looking out into the street from the stage and I saw this group of people working out with Richard Simmons to a person dressed in a box as Richard Simmons. It was so funny. So energetic. And again, original. I loved it.

Maybe my favorite moment, other than getting to be part of it, was watching my friend Bryston Walters win the Couture Fashion Showdown. It was amazing.

Over the past 10 years, what three absolute highlights do you most remember?

I have a few favorite moments and costumes. One year, a couple came as Mount Rushmore and had this incredible headpiece mounted between them. I had never seen anything like it. It was so creative and out of the box.

Group costumes always win me over if they are done well, and I have two favorites from HighBall. About three years ago, a group of friends did the entire cast of Labyrinth! So good. Complete with Goblin King!

And then maybe two years ago, I remember looking out into the street from the stage and I saw this group of people working out with Richard Simmons to a person dressed in a box as Richard Simmons. It was so funny. So energetic. And again, original. I loved it.

Maybe my favorite moment, other than getting to be part of it, was watching my friend Bryston Walters win the Couture Fashion Showdown. It was amazing.

How have you seen HighBall’s creative platform empower the LGBTQ community?

HighBall celebrates the diversity of art and how it is presented in all of its fabulous forms, and that is evident in every aspect of the event. The Short North Association has a commitment to our LGBTQIA community, and as a result they showcase it in all of its glory on both nights of the event, from host to designers to organizers.

This is such a queer-positive event, encouraging people to not only come as a fabulous version of someone or something else but to also come as your fabulous self.

In what ways do you continue to cultivate your own creativity?

I listen to myself. The goal that I have when producing these shows and experiences with my friends is to do something that is worthy of us. I don’t want to just throw something together. I have to sit with something, think about it, doubt it, come back to it again and rebuild it for it to work.

I question everything, and that can sometimes be a dangerous part of the process, but it also really helps me edit and sift out the ideas. I am not trying to outdo myself. Ever. I am trying to just do something that is worthy of my time and the time of my friends and team that help me put it together.

What can we look forward to from you and the Heels of Horror cast for this year?

Well, like HighBall, Heels of Horror is 10 years old this year. And as a result, we are going bigger than we ever have, but I can’t give too much away!

We open Oct. 13 and play through Oct. 31st at Axis, and you can see the cast give a little preview at HighBall on Saturday (Oct. 21). Until then, mum’s the word!

Prizm photo by Staley Munroe

Melanie Kortyka

The special events coordinator for the Short North Alliance is producing her fourth HighBall.

Beyond its incredible fundraising mission, why is HighBall important?

HighBall Halloween promotes a sense of neighborhood pride and is a fantastic opportunity for attendees, designers and performers to explore their creativity.

I remember when I was new to Columbus and saw people pile into COTA buses wearing amazing Halloween costumes. I was wondering where everyone was going, and little did I know that they were all headed to HighBall Halloween!

“I get daily phone calls from someone saying they have a wild idea. These ideas are what creates so many special and unique experiences at HighBall each year.”

– MELANIE KORTYKA

We also receive amazing support from neighborhood partners like the Candle Lab, Jeni’s and Torso.

Describe the HighBall producer/ coordinator experience in three words.

Variable. You never know what you’re going to get, which I love and always keeps me on my toes. I get daily phone calls from someone saying they have a wild idea. These ideas are what creates so many special and unique experiences at HighBall each year.

Exciting. It is very energizing to work on such a large event and rewarding to see everything come together. I participate in a variety of unique events leading up to HighBall Halloween, from model calls to volunteer training. When I am finally on-site at the event, everyone is buzzing with excitement to see the over-the-top music and fashion.

Collaborative. We work with so many amazing partners to create HighBall Halloween. Not only do we have an incredible core team of eight people—not including myself and the Short North Alliance staff—we also work closely with talented performers and enthusiastic sponsors. It is an amazing opportunity to work with so many individuals.

What are a couple of the most challenging aspects of producing an event of this magnitude?

HighBall Halloween continues to change and grow each year. It is a new challenge to figure out how to best utilize High Street to accommodate our growing needs.

This year we are almost doubling our footprint of the event and are also wrapping around Goodale. This is actually really great because this gives us the opportunity to build a really unique public art piece and add a second stage in a new location, which we are calling Spectacle Park.

What are the most rewarding aspects of producing Highball overall?

HighBall Halloween is a significant fundraising event for the Short North Alliance. Proceeds from the event benefit safety and cleaning efforts, holiday campaigns, art installations, and so much more in the Short North Arts District. Selfishly, I love showing off this big event to friends and family who attend!

How have you seen HighBall inspire and influence local culture?

Year after year, the event has really grown from a smaller festival to a large two-day experience. We have had the opportunity to feature several young designers in the fashion show, many of whom have moved on to have successful careers in fashion and design.

HighBall features a lot of women in leadership. How do we replicate that elsewhere?

I am fortunate to work with strong women in leadership, not just within HighBall Halloween planning but throughout my daily interactions with business owners in the Short North Arts District.

As a younger woman progressing through my career, I have also received a great amount of professional support from these women. I think that supporting and cultivating younger generations of diverse female leaders is a great lesson for me and other women my age to carry onto future female leaders.

Prizm photo by Staley Munroe

Aaron James

The Columbus fashion designer has seen HighBall grow since his first show in 2010.

What is life like for a designer in the final days, up until the final runway show?

Things tend to be pretty hectic in the last few days leading up to show, running around trying to do final fittings, rehearsals for the show, still trying to get zippers into garments and hems finished.

And then you’ll get the bright idea to change or add something the night before the big show, so you’re backstage sewing and hot-gluing gems and seaweed and flowers right up until the very second before your model walks out onto the stage. It’s crazy and stressful but exciting.

How have you watched HighBall evolve over the years, especially since moving away and coming back?

I still remember the first year I did HighBall in 2010. The main stage was in an empty parking lot on 5th Avenue and High Street. It was like negative-46 degrees outside, and all the pre-staging, hair and makeup was in a little odd empty building on 5th and Pearl.

“I still remember the first year I did HighBall in 2010. The main stage was in an empty parking lot on 5th Avenue and High Street. It was like negative-46 degrees outside.”

– AARON JAMES

I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I became friends with some of the most brilliant creatives Columbus had to offer, like Kelli Martin, Lindsay Hearts, Brianne Jeanette and Crys Darling to name a few.

I was bitten by the HighBall bug and have looked forward to doing it year after year since.

What industry tricks can you now implement from your time in New York as a Broadway costume designer?

Broadway garments are worn eight times a week: danced in, flipped about, dragged across the stage and whatever else a choreographer comes up with. So now I put more thought and attention into every little stitch, tuck, fold or pleat.

What does your HighBall creative process typically look like?

My HighBall process is long and torturous (laughs). I literally start thinking up ideas for the following year the day after the big costume showdown.

So I’ll go through maybe three or four ideas before I get to one that really resonates with me. Then it’s the long process of finding the right fabric, models, etc. The real bulk of the work gets done in the last three weeks or so when it’s crunch time and I’m panicking because I’m super behind and have no idea how I’m going to get it all done before the show.

What advice would you give aspiring costume or fashion designers?

Always stick to your guns and stay true to yourself. Make the things you want to make even though they might not fit into what everyone else says fashion or design should be. It’s your new ideas and ways of looking at things that change the world and open minds to a new way of thinking.

Your HighBall costumes are always iconic. Which costume of yours was your favorite and why?

Good question. I think my favorite costume that I made was my Poison Ivy costume, partially because I actually came in second place that year (laughs). I just really had a lot of fun making that one. It had giant pink smoke-breathing Venus fly traps, and i could not have chosen a more perfect model for the character! You absolutely brought the costume to life and rocked the house.

Prizm photo by Staley Munroe

Que Jones

This is the fourth year the Columbus designer has shown his work at HighBall.

What inspired you for this year’s collection and costume couture entry?

This year’s collection is inspired by nature. Specifically, plants and their ability to transform and adapt to the harshest of climates.

This last year has been especially hard for the majority of this country, myself included. I found comfort in watching plants that are able to survive with minimal resources in the harshest environments, and through all of this maintain an unsurpassed elegance and beauty.

With just a little wind, a plant can share its beauty with the world.

Which is more work: Designing for huge drag shows or for HighBall Halloween? Which is more fun?

Physical work: the huge stage shows for sure. Mental work: HighBall for sure.

“That exhale after the last costume exits the stage is the best feeling in the world.”

– QUE JONES

When doing the big shows, there are amazing costumes, but most of these are then repeated for 10 to 25 people. Do this in repeat with several different designs and you are up to 75 costumes in a very short time.

Highball is only four outfits, but all four are deeply personal to me and as a result carry an immense amount of mental energy. From the designing process starting in June, through the construction, fittings, detailing, redesigning, models, hair, makeup and so many other elements, until the moment the costumes step on stage, I am fully engaged.

That exhale after the last costume exits the stage is the best feeling in the world. It’s hard to say which is more fun, because I love them both for very different aspects.

What have you learned from doing HighBall in past years?

Everyone is amazing! What has blown me away about HighBall is the quality of the designers across the board. Then, realizing the fact they are all nice and gracious people.

While it is a competition, we all help and encourage each other all through the process. I am so happy to have worked with these designers and am so honored to call some of them my friends.

I’ve also learned to work ahead. I am a notorious procrastinator and often have elaborate designs. My goal this year is to be able to sleep the week before HighBall.

Who are the top three people who’ve had the most influence on your design career?

Nina West. This may seem odd as she isn’t a “designer,” per se, but she has an incredibly clear aesthetic and pushes me every time she creates an order in both my skill as a builder and designer.

Leigh Bowery. His fashion choices shaped my aesthetic from an early age. Bowery showed me clothes don’t always have to be practical; they just have to make you feel something.

Bryston Walters, a former HighBall designer. I never had formal training, and he is always there at 2 in the morning when my sewing machine is malfunctioning, or when I can’t get the tensions correct for a certain fabric, or whatever I need. He has truly been a friend, inspiration and teacher through my entire design career, and I am so thankful for him.

Side note: Choosing three was nearly impossible as I am surrounded by amazing, inspiring people both locally and worldwide.

People affectionately refer to Halloween as “Gay Christmas.” Why do you think that is, and do you agree?

Halloween celebrates the different, the unique, the macabre. It’s a night where you can be yourself or whatever you want to be. This is an idea I think Queer people have fallen in love with.

In your opinion, what must all stage-worthy outfits include?

They must be effective. As in make you feel something. What that feeling is stays with you and the designer. In my opinion, there is nothing worse than a forgettable look, because it didn’t make you feel anything.

Staley Munroe is the creative director of Prizm.

Bob Vitale
A Toledo native and graduate of Toledo Public Schools, Bob has worked as a local government and politics reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, as a Washington correspondent for Thomson Newspapers and as editor-in-chief for Outlook Ohio. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science from Ball State University and a master's degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.